In his recent book, Church, the historical theologian, Ephraim Radner, argues that ecclesiology – a relatively recent aspect of theology – ‘is a study of the Church as the Church itself is shaped by historical encounters and challenges’ (20). Radner notes that sustained theological reflection on the Church only begins in the 12th and 13th centuries, during a time of significant upheaval and re-envisioning of the Church, owing to conflict between Western European Christians, lending support to his idea that ecclesiology is significantly shaped by external factors.
Radner’s concern is, in part, to look closely at the way traditions develop as a result of their historical contexts, and the choices of individuals and individual groups, and to see how these traditions are ‘increasingly permeable’ in our time. ‘This is not to say,’ he continues, ‘that any ecclesiology is merely a “justifying” ideology, and that we usually argue for a church that suits our self-interest. But ecclesiology is an expression of human choices, motives, agents and means’ (21). Among other things, understanding how these different factors have shaped our perspectives on ecclesiology will keep us from arrogance and stereotypes:
If we do not see this point, our reflection on the Church will move immediately to the question of “who is right?” or “which church or church theologian has the better theology of the Holy Spirit?” and so on… We need to protect ourselves from jumping in too quickly to the root theological concepts at work in Christian reflection on the Church, because, frankly, experience has told us that this moves us to too-easy and distorted generalizations about actual Christian life (21).
Radner’s argument addresses me on a personal level to some degree, growing up as I did in a context where many argued that there was a divinely-mandated ordering to the Church. It was particularly interesting, then, to see him suggest that this perspective itself emerges from the way history has shaped ecclesiology:
We cannot escape the Church’s history. Ecclesiologies today – as in any day – “bear the marks” of the Church’s or churches’ various historical experiences of self-distinguishing against enemies: antagonisms, assertions, exclusions, flights, rebellions, specific renewals. Christians have recognised the difficulty in which this puts them with respect to “finding the truth” about the Church, especially when dispute about that truth is rampant. The “primitivist” instinct that has led many over the years…to “go back to the Apostles” to find the true shape of the Church has been nurtured by this recognition of marred ecclesiologies. [However,] we cannot get to a Church before her subjection to history (50)!
None of this is to say that we cannot look to Scripture to shape our ecclesiology, but only that as we do so, we also cannot ignore the way the multitude of historical and contextual factors have shaped our view of the Church. And that, in turn, is no reason not to commend or defend our own traditions, but only to say that we ought to do so with both a deep sense of humility about them, and an openness to others.